Hear and Now: What emerges in the space between words?

by Bob Stilger
First published in ascent magazine, 2008

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Reflections on the Language of Listening

Several years ago I was in discussion with Terry, a thirteen-year old girl and two other people at the Shambhala Authentic Leadership Institute. I have no memory of what question we were addressing, but Terry brought the story of her own invisibility in her family. She spoke of her deep pain of her parents not knowing who she was and their complete inability to listen to her story, her experience, her yearning.

We only had twenty minutes together in conversation. I’m sure I was looking for something wise and pithy to say, but mostly I listened. Sometimes Terry spoke harshly, each word a blunt instrument crashing down. At other times she spoke softly, sharing her inner bewilderment with us. They won’t let me talk. They ignore me. My dad actually put me on a curfew because he didn’t believe what I was saying. I just want to get out. Why can’t they see who I am? Why do they have to put me inside the little boxes of their own experience? In front of my eyes, I saw a passionate and courageous warrior emerge from her bewilderment. Mostly, she talked. We listened.

I saw a shift in her and it didn’t come from any advice or proffered wisdom. It came because we listened. For years I had been looking for new language. If only we could find the right words, I thought, we could talk about new ideas and frameworks to help us navigate these uncertain times. The experience with this young woman helped me begin to realize that we don’t need new words as much as we need new listening. We need a language of listening.

It’s not that I don’t love words. I do. I savor the way they can slip off a tongue and slide into an ear. I delight in their capacity to bring light into an ominous room. But too often they are used to codify, dominate and suppress life. Too often they are used as shields to surround our own doubt and as weapons to secure a position of seeming superiority. What are the words and the language that allow us to speak from the depth of our knowing with the passion of our souls? What is the language that can reach past our pettiness and into our separate and collective greatness?

As a social artist, community activist and sometimes academic, I think I ought to be able to put just about anything into a compelling phrase. I’ve lived a lot of my life in my mind: having conversations, reflecting on conversations, getting ready for conversations. I’ve spent countless hours thinking and wondering about experiences. I’ve always been ready to put ideas into my words. Yet, there are times when I have been most able to share my strongest convictions and deepest feelings by keeping my mouth shut.

At The Berkana Institute I have an opportunity to work with people from many cultures. We work with a network of leadership learning centres located in Pakistan, India, Greece, Senegal, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, the US and Canada. We think of this as a trans-local network because it is rooted in local experiences and local learning which are then connected across the globe. As a network, we are learning about the conditions that build resilient communities. We pay attention to new forms of leadership, deep conversation as the basis for all learning and decisions, and the physical work required to grow food, live healthily and create zero waste.

Many languages are present within this trans-local learning community— not just the obvious languages from different cultures, but the less visible languages that have arisen in a world characterized by the use of power over rather than the use of power with.

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